Allowing Cellphone Use in Airplanes Won't Create Chaos

We can work it out for ourselves.

When it was announced last month that the Federal Aviation Administration was relaxing the rules on personal electronic devices during take-off and landing on commercial passenger flights, Americans rejoiced. No longer would we have to suffer the indignity of staring blankly at the tray table before us for the 15 minutes it takes a flight to reach cruising altitude, or worse, touch ink-stained dead tree bits to occupy ourselves. Yet when the Federal Communications Commission soon thereafter similarly announced that it to was reconsidering its prohibitions on in-flight cell phone use, all hell broke loose.

"Imagine being in the middle seat trapped between two idiots yabbering on about their love life or whatever else, or how important they are for five hours on a transcontinental flight—it’s going to be chaos,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), echoing the sentiment of most Americans according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The New York Times, USA Today, and many other news media ran opinion pieces with the consistent theme that flying was already a pretty miserable experience and that cell phones would only make it worse. And the flight attendant’s union also opposed changing the rules calling such a move potentially “unsafe” and noting in a statement that “flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment.”

Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the FCC, found himself in crisis communications mode just a couple of weeks into his tenure, saying in a statement that he too would rather not see any calls on planes. The FCC’s ban on in-flight cellphone use, however, is a technical one meant to address radio interference, not politeness. “[A]dvances in technology likely no longer warrant—on a technological basis—the prohibition of in-flight phone use with the appropriate on-board equipment,” Wheeler said.

And therein lies the rub. If a technology is safe, but potentially annoying or discomforting to most people, should the government ban its use? Most people seem to think so, including putative small-government Republicans like Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) who said he would introduce legislation to ban in-flight chatting if the FCC loosened its regulations. What this misses is that the government is not the only one that can make and enforce rules.

What deregulation like that being pursued by the FAA and FCC does is create new options and introduce choice where there was none before. Cellphones don’t work at 30,000 feet unassisted; they can’t communicate with cell towers. In order for cellphones to work in the air, airlines have to install special equipment. Today they are not allowed to install that equipment, and all FCC deregulation would do is give them the option.

The FAA’s move to allow use of electronics during take-off and landing worked the same way. Airlines can still decide not to allow device use on their airplanes, and indeed it took a while for each airline to change its rules to permit device use. Deregulation just means airlines now have the option. This means that if the FCC were to change its cellphone rules, folks like Sen. Alexander could nevertheless fly airlines like Delta, which announced that in response to customer demand it won’t ever allow calls.

If that demand is there, as it certainly seems to be, airlines will respond with private rules and bans on cellphone use without government’s help. And private rules have the advantage of being much more varied and flexible than the difficult-to-change, one-size-fits-all rules we can get from government. We can see this at work in Europe and Asia, which already allow cellphone use in-flight. According to the New York Times, “Virgin Atlantic allows unlimited data connections, but it lets only six people talk on a cellphone at once. Some Lufthansa flights allow data connections through a cellphone, but no phone calls.”

Even on flights that do allow cell phone use, it won’t be “chaos” as Rep. DeFazio predicts. Humans have a pretty good history of eliciting good behavior from each other through the development of norms without the need for codified rules–public or private. According to the FAA, civil authorities in countries were in-flight cellphone use is permitted reported no “cases of air rage or flight attendant interference related to passengers using cell phones on aircraft equipped with on-board cellular telephone base stations.”

The likely reason is simply that very few people are so shameless or tone-deaf as DeFazio and Alexander imagine. Just as we don’t see boom boxes blaring now that electronic devices are allowed on take-off and landing, we’ll probably see very few people on their phones “babbling about last night’s love life [or] bathroom plans,” as Alexander put it. Indeed, Emirates has no restrictions on the number of passengers who can talk on their phones, yet few apparently do.

Before reactively banning a potentially uncomfortable technology, how about first giving markets and human norms a shot? If nothing else, it would be worth seeing if a problem really emerges before foregoing the benefits of the technology. In most cases the likely outcome will be that imagined horrors won’t materialize, and if some problems do crop up, human adaptation, norms, and private rules are often more than enough to deal with them.

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  • ||

    Government ban? No. Will I preferably fly an airline with a "no phone calls" policy? You bet.

  • db||

    Same here. Oh, I get to fly compressed between two fat men with bad breath while the kid two rows over screams and kicks the seat in front of him and listen to the lady in front of me yak on and on to her sister about nonsense?

    Fuck that. I'll fly Quiet Time Airlines any day over that.

  • ||

    I'm usually stuck between a window seat-occupying fat lady with a bladder infection and an obese aisle seat-hogging Korean with terminal flatulence.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    So, your wife and your brother-in-law?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    "Cause there's some reason you're always flying together.

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  • ||

    Actually, my libertarian wife refuses to fly until every last TSA agent has been executed, bless her blackened heart.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    There's one thing Amtrak has going for it. Near zero security.

  • ||

    TSA has actually run a few trials on Amtrak. Expect full implementation within the next year.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    I only fly on planes that have ashtrays and still permit their use. Commercial aviation is for suckers.

  • spikethedog||

    Oh, stop being so precious.
    Talking on a cell phone should be nothing more than talking to the passenger beside you.
    Besides, there are and will be no NO CELL PHONE planes because people want them.

    You could always take your high-speed rail.

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    If I don't want to talk to the passenger beside me, I can pretend to be asleep.

  • ||

    Not if you are next to me. I have a very magnetic personality.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    But this will make the waitresses' jobs harder!

  • SugarFree||

    As long as they allow air horns, I support this move.

  • Homple||

    Vuvuzelas, anyone?

  • wareagle||

    work it out among ourselves? Not without violence. Far more people are shameless than this author thinks. Put me on Quiet Air every time.

  • Enough About Palin||

    "Jerry Brito on Cellphones in Airplanes"

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

  • ||

    "Imagine being in the middle seat trapped between two idiots yabbering on about their love life or whatever else, or how important they are for five hours on a transcontinental flight—it’s going to be chaos,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.)

    I thought politicians got to travel first class?

  • JD the elder||

    two idiots yabbering on about their love life or whatever else, or how important they are

    Those ARE the politicians!

  • Cdr Lytton||

    Idiot yabbering on is a good description of Petey. Maybe that POS will give up his sinecure for life and retire to his second home in New Zealand.

  • LynchPin1477||

    This was my very first reaction to the complaints. I can't fathom why so few seem capable of grasping this.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    "Cellphone" section. "No cellphone" section. Easy. (And the airlines can charge the "no-cellphone" crybabies extra to subsidize the rest of us.)

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    You have that exactly backwards.

  • jdgalt||

    If some passengers find cell phone use annoying, why not divide a plane into phoning and no-phoning sections? Unlike smoking, it won't force everybody else to breathe nasty fumes.

    While we're at it, I'd like to see the sections in restaurants, too.

  • Agammamon||

    Or

    or

    OR

    put on a damn pair of headphones ya whiners.

  • Contrarian P||

    "flight attendants, as first responders and the last line of defense in our nation’s aviation system, understand the importance of maintaining a calm cabin environment.”

    What the hell? Now flight attendants are "first responders"? Are you kidding me? Responding to what exactly? A spilled drink? A lack of a blanket or pillow? And they're the "last line of defense" too. Funny, I thought the reinforced cockpit door would fit that description much more aptly. Shouldn't your first response not also be your last line of defense? Seems a pretty poorly thought out plan.

    This is what we've come to, folks. It's the end product of this terrorism-obsessed nation we've created. Now someone talking too loudly on their cell phone is a national security threat. Flight attendants are now the thin scarf-wearing line against the evildoers who even now are plotting our ruin. Police get to play dress up and drive MRAPs, then shoot some dogs. Next our nation's fast food workers will be an invaluable intelligence resource.

  • Homple||

    For example Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River. The pilot praised his cabin crew and their training for getting people positioned for safe rescue when the plane hit the water.

    Also, any emergency. I've ridden on plans where the crew had to deal heart attacks, miscarriages, asthma attacks....

    That kind of first response, you underinformed twit.

  • creech||

    How about after the clown next to you has chatted 15 minutes on his cellphone, you then subject him to 15 minutes of rude "Dear Abby" advice about the issues you heard raised in said phone call?

  • SugarFree||

    It is much like the New Soviet Man problem. I wouldn't have an issue with it if everyone had some basic damn manners. As is, I guess I'll have to start loudly reading some of my fiction until everyone else shuts it.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Start reading some of those Warty stories aloud and I guarantee you'll get people's attention.

  • Brian||

    Why don't we just make it illegal to be obnoxious?

    Or, make it perfectly legal to smack obnoxious people with a rolled up magazine? As in, you can hit them with impunity, but if they fight back, you can call the cops? Because, clearly, they deserved it.

    You know you've got first world problems with the highest regulatory bodies in the land are trying describe a situation in which people could possibly be obnoxious as "out of control".

  • Dread Pirate Roberts||

    The airplane cell phone ban is one ridiculous federal regulation I have no objections to whatsoever. After being treated like a criminal and jammed into a tiny space the last thing I want is some jerk next to me yakking into a speaker phone for several hours. It will be a good day to travel when the most onerous part of boarding an airplane is turning your off your cell phone for a couple of hours.

  • Agammamon||

    What century are you guys living in? Who the hell *talks* on a cellphone anymore. Are you on fire? No? THEN TEXT ME THAT SHIT!

  • Will Nonya||

    The thing is there are yabbering idiots on planes even without cell phones. The trick is headphones. You put yours on, turn on some music or a video you like and they cease to exist...

  • Car Scanner||

    If it's true, it would be good.

  • avocats||

    What a crazy optimist. "The likely reason is simply that very few people are so shameless or tone-deaf as DeFazio and Alexander imagine." Do you fly much?

    Granted, regulation may not be the answer, but nothing sucks more than sitting in that cramped, icky atmosphere and having to listen to dunderheads-live or cellphone. Thank god the young and dimwitted text all the time. I have sprung for the new Bose noice-cancelling headset but even the latest doesn't block out some voices.

    Yes, I will fly the No-Cell Airline. I would also fly the No Tourist Airline (Business Only Airline).

  • Overtaxed||

    If nothing else, please make using cell phones on the plane crazy expensive (like the aircells that used to be on planes were); IIRC, something like $5/min. That way, if you REALLY need to make/take a call, you can, but you're going to pay for it, and you're not going to be on a plane with 300 people and 290 of them on the phone. Imagine being trapped next to a teenager jabbering away to his little buds for 6 hours NY-LA? Oh man, if there was ever a good reason for popping the emergency hatch.

    If it's expensive it will be a luxury, and only those desperate enough to pay the high rates will do it. I made one aircell call in my life, in lots of flights I may have seen 2-3 other people using them; always for fast conversations!

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  • eubes||

    Whose phone even works in the air? Every time I turn on mine after we reach "cruising altitude" it can't get any service.

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